Landlords filed eviction cases against a growing number of households over the second half of 2020. While eviction filing rates remain below typical levels, they are steadily increasing as we near the end of the year and the expiration of the CDC eviction moratorium. The absolute number of households facing eviction is significant, and so is the amount that they owe when eviction cases are filed. In this brief, we examine trends in claim amounts—the back rent, late fees, and damages that landlords claim when filing an eviction case—over the course of 2020 in a few key cities we are monitoring through the Eviction Tracking System. This analysis details how much money tenants will likely be evicted for in 2021 and, as such, how much stimulus money and emergency rental assistance will be required to support tenants throughout and beyond the public health crisis.
On August 27th, the Eviction Lab published an analysis of claim amounts by examining housing court records in Cincinnati, Houston, and Phoenix from April through August. While there was an increase in the amounts claimed between April and May, those figures appeared to stabilize over the summer months. However, new data running through November in Cincinnati1, Houston2, Phoenix3, and New York City4 reveal that claim amounts are quickly increasing as government assistance runs out.
From August onwards, landlords have filed eviction cases with unusually large claim amounts in all four of the jurisdictions where we are able to track these data. In Figure 1, we plot monthly median eviction claim amounts as a ratio of median rent from January through November. We omit months in which we do not have data or in which very few cases were filed5.
In Figure 1, we observe much higher claim amounts late in 2020 than were typical of early months of the year. For example, in Houston, median eviction claim amounts in January ($1,099), February ($1,050), and March ($1,064) hovered just above the median rent in Harris County ($1,031), suggesting that the typical tenant facing eviction at the beginning of 2020 was roughly a month behind in rent. In November, by contrast, the median eviction claim was for $1,895, 183% of median rent in Harris County.
In New York City, the typical pre-pandemic eviction claim was for $2,645, or just under double the median rent. Since August, landlords have been claiming upwards of $4,650, or more than three times median rent. These figures indicate that, as we approach the end of the year and the expiration of the CDC National Eviction Moratorium, the typical NYC tenant facing eviction is behind three month’s worth of rent, a considerable debt most will not be able to erase by the year’s end.
In Houston and New York City, we are able to compare trends in claim amounts this year to those in recent years. In Figure 2, we plot the monthly median claim amount in 2020 compared to 2016-2018 in New York City and 2016-2017 in Houston.
Figure 2 allows us to better appreciate the extent to which rising claim amounts in 2020 are a significant historical aberration. In previous years, claim amounts in eviction cases were stable across months: the claim amount on a typical case filed in March looked a lot like that on a case filed in October. That is not true of 2020. As state-level eviction protections lifted—in May in Houston and June in New York City—claim amounts rose dramatically. Those dollar figures continue to increase in Houston. In New York City they have declined slightly relative to the high reached in September, but remain well above normal.
The increase in claim amounts does not appear to be driven by landlords choosing only to file on tenants who have fallen several months behind. Rather, median claim amounts are rising even as landlords file an increasingly large number of cases. The number of eviction filings and the claim amounts of those filings are rising in lockstep.
Nor is the increase in eviction claim amounts driven by landlords filing against more affluent households with higher rents. To investigate this possibility, we assigned every eviction filing in Houston in 2020 to its neighborhood (defined as its Census block group). We found that eviction filings were and continue to be limited to a small set of low-income neighborhoods. In January and February of this year, over half of all eviction filings in Houston concerned tenants who lived within just 9% of neighborhoods6. The median claim amount in these areas was $1,018. In November, the median claim amount for cases in these neighborhoods was $2,0007. The distribution of neighborhood median rents associated with eviction filings is almost identical before and after March of this year. Landlords are filing evictions in the same buildings and neighborhoods as prior to the pandemic—but for much more money.
The data suggest that the current economic crisis is causing more renters to fall further behind on rent and that most of those renters live in low-income neighborhoods. Under normal circumstances, many landlords file to evict tenants after their first month of partial or missed rent. Eviction moratoria, including the CDC moratorium, allow tenants to stay in their homes without making full rent payments, but do not remove the obligation to pay. As these moratoria lift, cases are being filed against households that have fallen several months behind on rent.
Prior to the pandemic, many households facing the threat of eviction owed their landlords relatively small amounts of money. Our analysis suggests that the situation is changing and that a growing number of tenants are being threatened with eviction for larger monetary sums. While emergency protections have stalled evictions and temporarily kept people in their homes, they have not stalled rents. Most households that find themselves two, three, or four months behind on rent will not be able to repay that debt on their own. This analysis supports a growing body of work demonstrating the urgent need for large-scale federal emergency rental assistance.